Written by Pastor Ed
Called for a Purpose
October 19, 2014
I & II Peter
I Peter 2: 4-10 and II Peter 3: 8-13
Let me begin by noting that while I have grouped I & II Peter together, I am not going to refer much to II Peter. I Peter is generally regarded as an authentic letter written by the Apostle Peter, however, II Peter is generally accepted as having been written much later, and not by Peter but by someone writing in his name. And lest you think that is just modern scholarship, that opinion was already voiced by Origen in the 3rd century (217-251) who said “Peter left one epistle which is acknowledged, but there is also a second one. This however is doubtful.” The language and style are totally different, and in fact one commentator said, “II Peter is perhaps the only book of the NT whose language profits from being translated.” And since most of the book of Jude, which we will come to in several weeks, is included in the 2nd chapter of II Peter, we can deal with the issues raised at that time.
I Peter, however, if we accept that it was written by the Apostle Peter would have been written sometime before AD 64, when Peter was martyred in Rome. It is one of the “general epistles” not addressed to any specific congregation but to a group of congregations, labeled the “exiles in dispersion.” As with many of Paul’s letters, it is a letter of encouragement and a call to faithfulness. If there are key verses, they would be 1: 15-16,
“Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct;for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
So what does it mean to “be holy?” For many people, it brings up an image of a pious person who never does anything wrong, never thinks a bad thought, and perhaps sits in a cave all day praying: in other words, someone who is “perfect.” And because we will never be that, many people simply give up and don’t even try.
At our pastors’ retreat this week, the speaker did an exercise that illustrates this. We were each given a sheet of paper on which were three words which we were supposed to do anagrams of – rearrange the letters to make a different word. And we were instructed to turn the paper over and do one word at a time. First word, turn the paper back over, second word, and so forth. Unbeknownst to us, for half the group the first two words were easy – “tab” became “bat” and “lemon” became “melon.” For the other half, the first two words were impossible; you couldn’t form anagrams with them. So when we turned the paper over for the third word, which was the same for everyone, only people who had been able to solve the first two words got the last one, and some who had been unable to solve the first two didn’t even try – they had given up assuming they wouldn’t be able to do it anyway.
But if that’s what being holy means, then indeed we might as well all go home, because none of us will ever be perfect, at least in this life. To be holy, in the Bible, generally means to be set aside for special use. The vessels in the temple were considered holy, they were for a special purpose. If you’ve ever been in the kitchen of a synagogue, you will find dishes that are labeled and can only be used on special holy days. A church in Wisconsin shared a building with a Jewish congregation and had to be careful how and what things were handled in the kitchen.
So we are called a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a chosen people. That means we too have been set apart for a specific purpose, to carry out God’s mission here on earth. To be holy does not mean that we are put on a shelf to be looked at and admired. Even the “holy men” of the Middle Ages, the monks and ascetics who separated themselves from the world, had a mission of prayer for the world around them. And so, much of the rest of the letter spells out what Peter saw as appropriate ways to carry out that mission in the world of the 1st century. We might approach some of those issues differently today, but the point of his instruction is that we should set an example for the people around us in order to draw people to God rather than drive them away.
But you may still be saying, “Well, I can’t do much along those lines. I’m going to have to work on myself awhile first before I can be an example.” I’ve heard congregations debate this, saying, “before we can do any inviting of other people, we need to get ourselves shaped up first.”
And this is where I think the other prominent image in I Peter may also help us. That is the image of the stones. It just so happened that Harold Schilk, pastor at the Springridge Mennonite Church at Pincher Creek used this passage for the evening devotions on Wednesday at the retreat and offered some helpful direction that I want to build on.
We all know the image of Christ the cornerstone which Peter uses, but then Peter goes on to suggest that we too are stones, and like, living stones, are to be built up into a spiritual house, again an image of being used for a purpose. Harold, in his meditation, pointed back to instructions given to Moses as the children of Israel were encamped at Mt. Sinai, in which God first of all said they weren’t to build any altars, but God goes on, “If you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it with hewn stones, for if you use a chisel upon it you profane it.” (Ex. 20: 25)
That is, if you want to build an altar to God, don’t cut and shape the stones so that they all look alike and fit nicely together, rather use uncut stones, natural, the way you find them. And it struck me that this is exactly the way God uses us. After Peter calls the people to holiness, he doesn’t say, “Now if you get yourselves straightened out, take care of all your sins, and live perfectly, then you can be living stones, or a holy nation, God’s own people. No, he said, “you are all those things.”
And as such, you are being built into a structure to show the world what it means to be a Christian. God could have said, “You know, if I’d make all the Christians alike, then it would be easy to build the perfect church, just like stacking bricks.” He could have been like Procrustes, in Greek mythology, who had a guest house on the main road to which he invited all who passed that way to spend the night. But his iron bed was only one size, and he made everyone who slept there fit the bed. So if you were too short, he stretched you on a stretcher, and if you were too long to fit the bed, well them there was a little trimming. So everyone who left his guest house was exactly the same height.
But God didn’t do that. Instead, like the stones for the altar, he uses people as they are and works to fit us together in the church with all our differences. It’s harder work that way, but makes a much more interesting building. Unfortunately, in the church we have often tended to be more like Procrustes, than like God. We have wanted to make everyone uniform, the same, thinking that would be more holy, or at least make things easier.
But that’s not God’s image of the church, the holy nation God placed here to carry out his mission. The hosts of heaven are from every tribe, tongue and language. Some of Jesus’ parables talk about going out into the highways and byways and gathering people in to the banquet that has been prepared. Becoming a Christian is not a destination, but a journey and as we walk that journey, we join with others who have started before us, and are then joined by others along the way.
This week we said good-bye to Frieda Peters who at 96 had been on the journey for many years and served as an example to many people along the way. She lived her life as an example of service and encouragement. She was a holy person, although I’m sure she would have demurely denied it. The truth is, as Christians we are all “holy people,” called by God to serve as examples to the world, not of perfection, but of what it means to live and work together with people who are all on the same journey, with all our imperfections and foibles. In fact, I discovered when I was building stone walls that it was those imperfections in the stones that made the wall sturdier.
Peter is writing to a people who are facing persecution with words of encouragement and hope. We may not face that today, but there are certainly Christians in the world who are, such as in Iraq and Syria currently. While the danger of living as Christians may not be as real for us, the danger of simply going along with the ways of society around us is certainly real, and so we too are called, as living stones, to show a watching world what it means to be a Christian, both individually and together. Only then will we be carrying out the purpose to which we have been set aside as holy.